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The Climate-Change-Fighting, Deposed Maldives President On His Plans To Return Home

Mohamed Nasheed tried to save his low-lying country from rising sea levels, until he was forced out in a coup. The subject of the new film The Island President, he talks to Co.Exist about renewable energy and his plans to return home, even if he is arrested.

The Maldives, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean with a population of just over 300,000 spread out over hundreds of islands, has a global presence that belies its size. Perhaps you’ve heard of Mohamed Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected president. Nasheed, who was forced out last month in a coup by supporters of the former dictatorship, is best known for his attempts to bring worldwide awareness to climate change, largely because the low-lying Maldives are in immediate danger of being overtaken by sea-level rise.

Nasheed held the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting (get it?), pledged to make the Maldives carbon neutral by 2020, loudly lobbied for an international agreement during the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, and is now the star of a new movie, The Island President, that follows Nasheed before, during, and after the Copenhagen meeting. During his trip to the U.S. for the film’s New York City premiere, we spoke to Nasheed about the movie, whether the developing world can help fight climate change, and his plans to return to the country that deposed him.

Co.Exist: What are you up to now that you’re not in the Maldives?

Mohamed Nasheed: Well, there was a coup and I’ve been forced out of office. Gayoom had been [in power in the Maldives] for the past 30 years, and he’s back. We need to get the country back on track as quickly as possible. Elections are very, very important. The longer we leave it as it is, the dictatorship will become more entrenched. But this is a good opportunity for us to see how we might be able to talk to as many people as possible about what is happening in the Maldives as well as on climate issues. I think the [climate change] situation hasn’t improved at all. We need to see how we can continue campaigning.

When I saw The Island President premiere in San Francisco, the people behind the movie mentioned afterwards that you were concerned about the new government squandering cash from the international community that was intended to bring the Maldives to carbon neutrality. Is this a big concern for you?

It is a police state now, and the police and the military are calling the shots. They want to get their things done before anything else.

Do you think it’s too late to completely stop runaway climate change?

We worked very hard to bring attention to climate change. Given the amount of work we’ve done, we’ve been able to succeed somehow in pressing upon the international community the gravity of climate change issues. We’re bracing ourselves because of what we’ve done to the planet. Adaptation is something that we need to focus upon, and education also needs to happen. People have to understand that there are planetary boundaries, there are limits to things we can do. Now, how you have a better life within those limits I believe is through technology.

Technologies like solar and wind?

All the renewable energy technology that’s available. I feel that fossil fuel is an obsolete technology, and it’s time now to try to install the new knowledge that we have. The new knowledge is there in terms of solar panels and so on, and it’s up to us to start investing in them and move away from fossil fuel. In the Maldives, we feel that solar energy is much, much cheaper [than alternatives]. For us, renewable energy is an economic argument as much as it’s an earth science issue. We’ve already started implementing projects, but with the coup, there’s a lot of uncertainty.

What do you think about the prospects for the international community to come to an agreement on climate change in the future?

I believe we can still come up with a legally binding agreement, and I believe we must not stop working on it. To do that, we have to make the ordinary people of countries more aware of it and call upon leaders to do it.

What about rapidly developing countries like India and China?

I have been in conversation with the Indian government a long time. My feeling is that they will be willing to come around to finding solutions more than some other developing countries. They don’t have all the infrastructure yet laid so it will be easier for them to switch or come up with new technology rather than replace the old. In developing countries it’s the new power plants that we’re worried about.

Do you hope to return to the Maldives soon?

I will go home on Wednesday, whatever may happen. I think it will not be that easy to arrest me.

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